In our high school’s choral concerts, freshmen sing alongside seniors. Young singers perform backup while mature students model poise, technique, and musicality. Juniors and seniors sing their message, fortissimo: Music is a worthy pursuit. Practice and persistence lead to beautiful harmonies. Young men and women enjoy the arts.
Across the hall in creative writing classes, high school students partner with elementary students to compose poetry and produce a publication. Advanced writers collaborate with, and provide feedback to, beginners. They model self-expression, thoughtful phrases, and a commitment to detail. Students who resist direction from a teacher see heroes in high school mentors. Someone like themselves, someone they could become.
Scott T. Allison Ph.D., in an April, 2022 article at Psychology Today, lists twelve functions of heroes. Allison says heroes energize and give hope, offer safety and protection, impart wisdom, and help us achieve personal and societal goals. According to Allison, “Heroes nurture us, save us, and help us become our best selves.”
Our students need heroes.
Imitation is how we first learn. Babies mirror their mothers, returning a smile or sound. In pretend play, children learn by emulating parents, siblings, and friends. Mimicry teaches more than motor skills and learning about others: it fosters connectedness. By the time students reach school age, they are adept at imitation. We want students to echo positive people and actions. As teachers, we can present them with heroes worthy of this emulation.
Every year, CNN recognizes heroes. In 2022, their heroes delivered food to the hungry and free books to kids. They connected dogs to senior citizens and art to Iraq veterans. They trained women for construction jobs and supplied underwear for the underprivileged. On CNN’s Facebook page, it says the project is about “Honoring everyday people who are changing the world.” Heroes show us what’s possible for our own lives. Just as adults need heroes, our students need them too. Heroes could be well-known figures, or people found in our own schools and communities.
Outside the classroom, students find heroes in pop culture and sports. Athletes join a football team, inspired by their favorite quarterback. Musicians play guitar to copy a famous rock star. They admire heroes who have changed the world through excellence—students want to do the same.
Although recognized for skills on the field or stage, many popular heroes are also philanthropic. John Cena donates time and money to Make-A-Wish, LeBron James supports the Boys and Girls Clubs in America, and Michael Phelps helps kids with medical conditions through his own foundation. Tennis star Serena Williams tops the list of charitable athletes by supporting 13 charities. These are heroes worthy of attention and praise.
Heroes are found in both men’s and women’s sports, but teachers and librarians know there is a short supply of nonfiction books about female heroes, and especially female sports heroes. Inspired by this need, we wrote a book that might help fill the void. We are fortunate to have an example in our own family—Gwen Jorgensen, the Rio 2016 Olympic gold medalist in triathlon. Gwen was influenced by swimmers Katie Ledecky and Jenny Thompson, and gymnasts Simone Biles and Aly Raisman. These women changed the world by excelling in their sport. Raisman and Biles changed the world by exposing abuse in their sport. These heroes inspired Gwen to also earn fast times and do good works as she pursued her passion for swimming and running and philanthropy.
Heroes are not born. They are created through hard work and high goals. Gwen’s journey is filled with failures: she failed to earn a college swimming scholarship; she failed to create a professional running career. Her path forward is one of teamwork with mentors, coaches, peers, and trainers. Her narrative is one of taking risks and setting daily goals. Her message is one of unearthing individual potential, whether or not that results in public recognition.
Alexi Pappas, a 2016 Olympian and author of Bravey says, “Gwen’s story proves that any girl can have a gigantic dream. From everyday young athlete to aspiring Olympic champion, Gwen’s story rings true and emanates inspiration.”
So, with ready material, and Gwen’s collaboration, we wrote a biography: Gwen Jorgensen: USA’s First Olympic Gold Medal Triathlete. It’s a story for middle-grade or young adult readers using themes common to many heroes: risks, goals, disappointments, and rewards. To help students implement some of Gwen’s processes, we offer an Educator Guide with discussion questions, activities, and worksheets.
Flora Duffy, the 2020 Olympic gold medalist in triathlon said, “I would have enjoyed reading this book as a young aspiring athlete. Gwen’s story is relatable to many in that she came from humble beginnings and slowly chipped away at her big goal. Her never give up attitude and dedication to reaching her goal to be an Olympian will be inspiring to all.”
Heroes are among us. They are present in history, in books, in real life. If we want students to be inspired, we must invite heroes into the classroom.